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The villa monologues

The discourse around Buenos Aires’ slums rarely transcends the self-righteous polemic of the Argentine press. Such moral outrage does little to resolve an urgent question: how to provide effective low-income housing that enables dignified living conditions?

Jessica Sequeira
4 October 2014
Buenos Aires' Villa 26

Buenos Aires' Villa 26. Demotix/Claudio Santisteban. All rights reserved.The controversial ‘V-word’ in Buenos Aires is ‘villa’, or slum. According to data recently released by the Universidad Católica Argentina, the population living in slums has increased by 156 percent over the last 13 years. Last week Victor Hugo Morales, silver-haired host of Argentina's ‘Fútbol para Todos’ programme, infuriated the hair-trigger national sensibility when he said that he chose the infamous Villa 31 to fund a new music school because "one can live there with a certain dignity". Impressed while walking through the villa, he pointed out its convenient proximity to the subsidized Cine Gaumont, where tickets for national cinema go for only eight pesos.

Predictably, these remarks about slum dignity generated furious polemic in the Argentine press, mostly related to the fact that Morales himself hardly lives in a villa. Born in the city of Cardona in Uruguay, he made his way up through the ranks of local radio and moved to Buenos Aires to work for El Mundo and Radio Mitre. Now he is worth millions, holding property in the toniest of Buenos Aires’ neighbourhoods, Puerto Madero, as well as New York. Many have accused him of being in the government's pocket, suggesting that comments of this kind are meant to downplay poverty at a time when inflation and unemployment are on the rise, the country has officially entered a recession and few satisfactory long-term answers are to be found regarding either the battle with the ‘buitres’ or the local economy.

Commentators who argue that a faux pas was committed have a point. At least, in magnifying a verbal slip-up, they have made it appear that way. Self-righteousness failing to transcend the pleasure of moral outrage does little, however; media polemic on its own does not answer the real question of how to provide effective low-income housing that enables dignified living conditions. The perpetual question in this city is how anger over insecurity, corruption and poverty—a poverty that is caricaturized, fetishized and turned to political ends—can become the subject of a productive discussion about how to improve infrastructure, necessary for the creation of an effective state-organized society.

A vicious cycle

Media reactions short-circuiting productive discussion are the counterpoint to an equally shallow political discourse in which ‘novedades’ are periodically announced that rarely see completion. What is the likelihood that the 335-metre high 'audiovisual tower' proposed for the Isla Demarchi, which looks like a giant skateboard ramp made of mirrors, will come to fruition? What are the chances the capital will be moved to Santiago del Estero? Where are the promised waste processing plants that were to be built by the Indoamericano and Parque de los Niños, in order to shift the burden from the overworked plant in José León Suárez?

Extravagant political promises are nothing new. Numerous government projects have been proposed that either never saw the light, like minister Álvaro Alsogaray's ‘artificial island’ for airport landings, or were shut down after operating very briefly, like the electric train connecting Barrio Constitución to Ezeiza. A vicious cycle repeats in which ambitious plans lead to indignation when these plans do not materialize, which in turn results in attempts to placate the population with grander proposals. Amplified in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, this cycle has a certain style to it, replete with a catchy rhetoric that is delivered ready for pull-quotes and the inevitability of being incorporated into convincing media narratives.

The simplification of the discourse about slum dignity can be framed in musical terms. It's a pop version of the facts, light music sidestepping the grunge of reality, a reduction to mere gestures. To tamp down the outrage in the aftermath of his comments, Morales took a symbolic trip to Villa 31. Though this seemed to placate journalists, it seems more offensive than his original anodyne remarks—a romanticized poverty tourism similar to that seen in Rio when World Cup visitors embarked on guided visits to the favelas, snapping pictures for slideshows to show friends back home.

Back-patting and blacklisting

Morales has felt under personal attack by the media for a long time, particularly the Clarín group, which comprises a number of TV stations and newspapers. His book Audiencia con el diablo (Hearing with the devil), published this year, is a counterattack to what he sees as the systematic lying and character assassination of Clarín—or as he refers to it, “a Mafia group that has the country by the lapels”, and whose boss is politically linked with the government of neoliberal ex-president Carlos Menem.

On his show 'Bajada de línea' Morales discussed the ‘trucos’, or clever strategies, that the newspapers use to influence people. These range from omission and misleading phrasing ("A train didn't brake and provoked a disaster" during the Once train accident, "The government plans not to pay anything to Repsol" during the YPF takeover) to outright lying, as when during the infamous Angeles Rawson murder case, a witness was invented to suggest the victim’s stepfather and half-brother sexually abused her.

Morales' point is that the media group's constant references to poverty, insecurity and corruption serve as a smokescreen for more important issues, generating fear rather than discussion. For him the insistent daily barrage of news articles achieves its efficacy through repetition, and the ‘freedom of expression’ underlying the backlash against a 2012 media law—in which Clarín accused the government of propaganda—was only a means to unleash more of the irresponsible, untrammeled polemic that hinders society more than it helps. The goal of journalism should be to “enrich the quality of thought”, unlike Grupo Clarín's newspaper and TV outlets which “attack the neurons like a video game Pacman.”

Silencing or muffling dissident newspapers, as Morales seems to want, is far from the answer however. Journalists and social media can and will say what they like, and it's unlikely that a call to ‘write responsibly’ will have much effect in an age presided over by tabloid journalism. Nor is that in itself necessarily a negative thing—news stories are the front line in calling attention to social problems. But genuinely taking on these problems is another issue. Villa 31, which Morales made his comments about, came into being in 1932 under the name ‘Villa Desocupación’, or ‘Unemployment Slum’, and has long been the city's most infamous urban ghetto. ‘Eradicating’ areas like it is a perpetual election promise, but not a solution. Even when such eradications do occur—as with the recent break-up of the Bajo Flores slum where Pope Francis worked—the people and their needs remain alarmingly present.

Defining 'dignity'

Few choose to live in a villa, but Morales' clumsy remarks have an important idea behind them. The reality is that not everyone can afford to live in a mansion or luxury flat, and for those who cannot, it is crucial that daily life possesses ‘dignity’ at the level of education, sanitation and recreation. A video on the Vice magazine website last week reported what everyone already knew, that the use of ‘paco’, a drug similar to crack cocaine, is on the rise in villas and in Buenos Aires province, where 42.6 percent of the population is defined as poor and fails to meet basic standards for nutrition and schooling. Two strategies are possible: improve existing villas by recognizing them legally and giving them infrastructure, or build entirely new low-income housing projects to shift the population.

In a piece last year called 'A market solution for Villa 31', Adrián Ravier wrote that "what Villa 31 really needs is for property rights to be assigned. The land is not public, and people live there. It is necessary for the property to be recognized and for the government of the city of Buenos Aires, which has this responsibility, to award it in writing; from there incentives will emerge to improve buildings and introduce sewers, running water, private security, asphalt on the streets, payment of taxes and everything that outside of Villa 31 seems normal."

Shifting the slum population is also a possibility. Historical precedents for urban reorganization in the city exist, such as Catalinas Sur, a low-income housing complex near Puerto Madero. Consisting of 17500 living spaces, it was set up in the early 1960s to accommodate a growing immigrant population, and eventually renamed Barrio Alfredo Palacios in honor of the socialist deputy who organized the project. Today it still exists as a ‘microbarrio’ with elegant glass and concrete buildings, sidewalks, plazas, a public school and an outdoor theatre.

But the challenges associated with shifting a neighborhood are enormous. As Marina Aizen writes in her book Contaminados, the anonymous housing blocks of the new ‘vivienda digna’ may appear cold and unwelcoming in comparison to the makeshift, informally organized neighbourhoods that residents lived in previously. Often the population is forced to move abruptly—“housing officials are sent to ‘make the population aware’ that they will be transferred, perhaps knowing that they will encounter resistance”—and a chain of secondary considerations such as school enrolment and transport must be taken into account. But it is possible to “negotiate, find compatible interests, lay down bridges, find points of agreement among the subjects who will be moving and the legal system rushing to see the work through.”

The cost of taking on such projects at a time when the Argentine economy faces serious difficulties is an important consideration. Yet it is far from absurd to imagine that money can be spent on necessary initiatives like these when the government has announced it is willing to pay 2,500,000 pesos for a cinema tower—a contrast which makes Morales' comment about access to eight peso tickets even more uncomfortable. How can the state create opportunities for employment and ensure minimum standards for a dignified existence? Is it possible to transform superficial moral outrage on behalf of the poor—feathers ruffled over comments like those of Morales—into a serious debate over urban organization? The answers to these questions are complex, and require discussion about how ‘dignity’ should be defined and guaranteed, no matter the financial duress of a citizen or nation.

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